The charming little Kern County mountain town of Tehachapi has one and only one big box store: A Kmart on West Tehachapi Boulevard. At the moment, anyway.
This coming week, after literally years of community teeth-gnashing, a shiny, new Walmart Superstore will open a scant 1,000 yards away.
Cue the video of the tender young mouse meeting his new, forked-tongue cage-mate.
If the managers of that justifiably wary Tehachapi Kmart are bracing for brutal times ahead, how must Barry and Darlene Carlos feel? They're not equipped to engage in retail battle, 2019 style. Darlene's Real Swell Toys, a mile east of Kmart, hasn't even graduated into 1970. Online sales? What's that?
Turns out the Carloses, 76 and 75 years old, are utterly Zen about Walmart's imperialist designs on Tehachapi. And not just because they don't sell the clamshell-packaged, mass-marketed, Mattel-type merchandise favored by the big boxes.
Their company avatar, if they had one, would wear PF Flyers and jeans with patched knees. They sell nostalgia and tactile simplicity.
"People like to come here because it makes them feel good," says Barry, who retired to Tehachapi with wife Darlene a decade ago. "I've had women come up to me here at the counter crying. They'll say, 'Oh, it's like I'm a kid again.'"
Darlene's Real Swell Toys is like a scaled down version of FAO Schwarz, the iconic New York toy retailer: Most everything is hands-on, user-friendly and engagement-oriented.
It's part toy store, part bookstore, part gag-gift store: Yo-yos, giant plush animals, train sets, sponge-ball guns, magnetic levitation displays, nonelectric pinball baseball, Whoopee Cushions, Pick-Up Sticks, electronic drum pads, mini-sand castle building kits — that sort of thing. A child, loosely defined, can get lost.
"Darlene is an excellent buyer because she's the biggest kid you'll find," Barry says of his wife, who deals with 35 or 40 vendors across the country, many of whom are importers. "She has a good sense for what will be popular with our kind of customer."
That intuition is what makes the Carloses largely Walmart-proof.
Their one concession to the digital age is a Facebook page, but it's a tool of social engagement, not a platform for order-taking. The idea is to collect "likes": Charm prospective customers into visiting and thank the people who already have.
"Everyone rates us five stars," Barry says. "One guy gave us a 4.9. I wanted to ask him, 'What did we do wrong?'"
Darlene wanted to run a toy store, as she had done previously in Ojai; that gig ended after two years when the owners of Spanky's Toys moved to Hawaii. So, when they moved to Tehachapi the Carloses — who have been married 24 years — started shopping for the right location.
They found it shortly after Darlene went to work for the Indian Point Ostrich Ranch. The owner of the ranch — now closed — was Joel Brust, who had a commercial space available near downtown Tehachapi. They snatched it up.
They sank $100,000 into what had previously been the site of an antique store, Barry says.
"Everything was black — dark wood, metal, wires hanging down from the ceiling," says Darlene, who spent much of her working life employed at a San Bernardino school district before turning to toys and giant, flightless birds.
Barry, who worked as a musician in the Bay Area but made his living painting, decorating and designing storefronts, is as well-suited to run a toy store as his toy-loving wife. He designed, built and painted every structure and display in the store, or oversaw the person doing it. His son built the replica Tehachapi water tower in the center of the store; the original is clearly visible from the front door, a few hundred feet across the street.
"If he wasn't building it," Darlene says, "he was telling someone else how to do it."
And they're still working hard: The store, at 103 W. H St., is open every day except Tuesday.
They'll watch with interest as Tehachapi's Kmart vs. Walmart battle plays out in the coming weeks and months.
"Kmart might really take a hit," Barry says, "but it won't affect us much. Our product line is so different from Kmart and Walmart. We don't sell Mattel and we don't sell Barbie. That's just not who we are."
Twenty-five years ago, America had more than 2,300 Kmarts. Today the country scarcely has 200, and the Walmart-invasion scenario is one major reason.
Meanwhile, America still has about 600 independent, locally owned toy stores like Darlene's Real Swell Toys.
On behalf of all us kids, I'll just say: May it ever be so.